Steve Farnsworth: How to Get Better Results from Your Content Marketing Team

Having great content is important, but having the right kind of great content is even more important. Too often, marketing teams are creating content that drives eyeballs, so to speak, but doesn’t drive sales.

Today I’m sharing some advice from content marketing expert Steve Farnsworth that addresses this problem. In this podcast, Steve outlines how CMOs and marketing teams can increase company sales by working together to ensure they generate effective, engaging content tailored to target audiences.

Steve is a Forbes Top 50 Social Media Influencer and a LinkedIn Top 25 Social Media Marketing Expert. Now that's the proof that he does the work. He's real and active in this space.


Steve has been noted by Forbes Magazine as being the number one influencer on Twitter for having the highest percentage of active followers in the field of public relations. Ninety-five percent of his followers are “active” followers. What that means practically is that he has live people following him, not bots or fake accounts, but real people that are following him, having real conversations and real interactions on Twitter.

We're talking to someone who actually does the work and is engaged with real people in real conversations. That's what we're after in this spirit of storytelling and content marketing. So without any further ado, let me welcome Steve Farnsworth.

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The Art of Storytelling in Business

It's a pleasure to have you, Steve. I'd like to start at the beginning, so please tell us about how you came to understand the importance of storytelling.

I would say that it actually goes back to sometime when I first started getting into public relations, which would have been around the mid 90s. As far as storytelling, we didn't have that kind of notion. At that time, content marketing really was about placing speakers and arranging for white papers, those sort of things. All my clients were in technology, some of them fairly deep technology. They were making decisions involving spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, and I wanted to give them information that met their needs.

In that sense storytelling, for me, was pretty powerful. I had an opportunity to actually say, “Here's what my thinking is.” That forces my clients to say, “Well, why did you do it this way; what's the advantage versus the other way?” It really gets them to put their argument out there, and that was when I first realized you can put all these pieces together and tell a story about the brand and your thinking in a way that connects with the customer and allows them to make an informed decision.

You just used one of my favorite phrases: “helping the customer make an informed decision.” Not bending or plying or forcing them to decide what you want them to decide, but instead giving them the appropriate information and then letting them choose. Let them choose with you or not with you, or whatever choice they want to make.

We all have our B.S. detectors. We always know we're reading marketing copy that’s fluffy and meaningless—it doesn't connect with us. We have this B.S. meter. Unfortunately, somehow when people become marketers, they remove that sensor and they put all the same crap out. You need to be able to tell the customer things that enable them to make an informed decision. If you don't have the right information to communicate, you need to rethink your whole business model. I only work with clients I believe have a great solution to what they are doing. You can't make silk out of a sow's ear.

In your world, there are clients who are making very expensive decisions: tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars. So how do we use content, how do we use story, to inform that level of decision? How do we inform a complex sale?

There are a lot of touch points that people go through. For the average B2B sale there are 5.4 decision makers. You can't approach content with, "Hey, we’re going to do this eBook, we're going to do this thing." You have to step back and do a couple of things: 

  1. You have to think like a publisher. People will talk about that, but they don't really know what that means. Publishers have to create something that their readers really want, and they have to do it in economic terms and make a profit from that.

    Right now, most marketing departments are still caught in this old mentality, where they're doing one-off content. They might do an eBook, or they might do this thing, or do a piece every month or whatever, but there's still these one-off pieces, not continuity. They need to move from that mindset and move to thinking like daily publication. Even if they're only doing it every couple days or every week, you have to think that “regular publication” thing.

  2. That means understanding what people really want. That's a piece that a lot of people aren't thinking about, stepping back and really looking at who they're talking to. I mean by title and industry and looking at all the components. That needs to happen. 

With most clients, the CMOs know exactly what they want. They say, “We need content, we need to do more of this,” and by the time it gets handed off to the people executing, they're doing top-ten lists of their favorite cat videos. Not really, but they’re doing content that's not connecting specifically with the buying ecosystem of their customers. 

I think a really good example of this is a big, very well-known company—one that is still active now—that was getting four or five million page views a month. That's probably a couple million unique visitors, which is a huge, huge number. They were noted for being great content marketers. I had a chance to talk to their CMO, and I found out that when they did testing of their name, it got really high marks. They did testing on what they did, and they got horrible marks; only a small percentage of folks knew what they did for a living. There was a big disconnect.

So all this great content and these page views translated into very, very, little business. I think it was like a percent or two turned into business. These are people spending millions of dollars, and they’re not connecting. They were really smart folks, but they were creating content to drive eyeballs. “You go drive eyeballs, go write something people want to read.” It wasn't connecting to the larger mission of selling product, because what they were producing wasn't being read by the decision makers in the buying ecosystem.

Driving Eyeballs or Driving Revenue: How to Run a Content Team

You said on one level the CMO knows what they want, and on some level it’s a version of dry revenue, but then at the same time the CMO is telling the content team to drive eyeballs. How does that happen? How do we say “drive revenue” and “drive eyeballs”those aren't the same thing. How does that disconnect live?

There’s nobody sitting down with them going, “Hey, listen, this is the way it's really done.” When I talk to people who are serious CMOs and they're doing stuff, they and I never or rarely disagree. We have the same vision. 

They make a decision, but when they say, “Go and do this,” that goes to another manager, someone below them, who then works with the people who are actually doing the content. There are a couple of layers of management there. This lower level may not be as aware or as connected because of where they are in their career, and so they start thinking of eyeballs, page views, shares, likes, or fans as somehow being important, quality KPIs (key performance indicators). 

These are good numbers to track, but they're not really connected with things. The measurement on the lower end is happening out of ignorance, and the vision is not getting carried through. It’s an education issue. 

It’s also—most of my clients are doing good stuff in content by any measure, but what they're not doing is taking advantage of all the opportunity by really understanding the customer. I mean really understanding from the sales perspective or what the customers are really doing and who is really buying it. 

Lots of times, marketing people talk to each other and we live in a little bit of a bubble, and that's dangerous. That's why I think that happens.

What you’re describing sounds kind of like the telephone game, where you start with a message on one end and you pass it along. It could be “the cow has blue shoes,” but by the time you get to person number ten, it’s “the red dinosaur runs in the field,” and you're like, How in the world did we go from a cow with blue shoes to a red dinosaur? 

I think you're absolutely right. I would just say one little piece of that is that we tell people to go do something, but we don’t always explain our thinking. So people don't understand why we’re doing it and the reason behind it; they just try to accomplish it. That's the other piece, I guess: not only bad messaging, but people at the execution level not being told what we are really trying to achieve by this activity.

One Hundred Sales: Segmenting Your Customers

How do we fix that? What is the mechanism to fix that? 

It takes a little bit of effort and work, because a lot of these really smart companies are using CRM (customer relationship management) systems or marketing automation and sometimes they haven't really gotten down to the nitty-gritty about who their users are. 

What I do with a client is sit down and look at their products and try to break it down: 

  • If you look at raw product sales, say you go to the last hundred sales for a particular product. 
  • If you were to segment those, you’d potentially come up with two or three segments for that product that accounted for 80 or maybe even 90 percent of those sales. 
  • Once you know those two or three groups  you can identify titles, industry, company size, and how they're using it—which may be different for each of the segments.

Just that information most people don't have. When I go through that with a client, if they have a hundred sales in that product category, it's usually hard to look at those hundred sales. I also would love to know where they come from. But rarely are those people connecting. 

That's really hard and rarely done, but if you have that information, you now have a place to start, to identify at least how to create content to match those peoples’ needs. Because one of the things you want to know is, why did they raise their hand? 

One client had a high-end software product that went for around $200,000 to $300,000 a year, and they sold to CMOs and VPs of sales. Those two tend to have someone working for them do the first outreach. So the person reaching out first was a lower-level person who was doing it on behalf of a VP of Sales or CMO, and they were doing it because they were trying to find a way to improve what they were doing. 

Those are two people now who have quite different needs, and there are the people raising their hand up for those needs. So I have a little bit better picture.

The third client was a much smaller group: IP managers. Even though probably 20 to 25 percent of the people that raised their hand were IP managers, they tended to close 90 percent of those in about 30 days, which is about two-thirds less time than the others. 

Once you know all those pieces you sit down and go okay, now I have a picture. We know the IT person raises her hand because it’s part of her job description to do things better. The CMO and VP may raise their hands or assign someone to do it for them. We now have an idea of the kind of content that we can create that’s going to meet that.

That’s the first part. Once you have that information, I'm a really big fan of taking salespeople to lunch. I think people should be doing that. Bigger organizations should be doing that a lot. You should be doing a sales ride-along if that’s an option. If you get to develop a relationship with a sales person and you go out and see them actually do a sale, you can see what's important to that customer and use that to inform your content strategy. 

Yes, it's a lot of work and it should be an ongoing process. But that stuff doesn't usually happen. What they do is jump to, “We need content, so what should we do? Let's sit in this room, a bunch of marketing people, and generate some ideas we think make sense.” That's normally the process it follows, as opposed to the longer one that I just laid out. 

Anyone can do that longer process. The only tools they need are time, focus, and dedication. You don't need anything fancy. Once you have those things, the other pieces of your content machine can fall into place, because now you can create content with some regularity on topics that are relevant to those people.

As you explain it, our content should facilitate the sales process, and so if we don't understand the sales process, we can't create good content. We should be present in the sales process, or at least be aware of the sales process, so we can create content that facilitates it. 

But you’re also describing situations where that's not happening. Why not? Why is it that such an obvious point of valuehaving content be overlaid into the sales processisn’t happening?

I think it comes down to time and pressure. People want to get stuff done. They need to have stuff to report at quarterly meetings or in weekly reports. They’re looking to get stuff done, and the idea of stopping and spending a lot of time on the front end is daunting. We’ve all done a lot of front end work that's been a waste, so I think there’s always that reluctance. 

What we're talking about here is exploration. It's not about getting it done; it's about understanding where we’re going to go, because we have to be able to get there. People say yeah, not a problem, we know our customers offhand—but when you're asking questions about titles and industry and percentages, they rarely have that kind of data. I think there’s pressure to get it done—“Let's move forward, let's go, let's not waste time with so much busy work”—and that's why it gets short-shrifted.

When someone brings me in and talks with me, that’s when they tend to have a moment of deeper reflection and realize that they need a little bit more information. They may say, “We sell this software that allows people to find all the parts for a building, and so builders are our customers.” But is that really true? Who is really buying it, and how are they doing it? They haven’t taken that extra step to go, “Oh you know what, instead of being this general type of customer like we thought it was, it’s really these three specific categories of buyers.” I think that's what happens.

Closing the Gaps: Creating Content That Speaks to Your Customers

Let’s assume that a CMO is listening right now and is thinking, “Yes, I've got some gaps. I know what I want, but it's not being delivered in my organization. I need to take a few steps to close those gaps and to have content that better serves our organization.” Where should that CMO begin this process?

  1. First of all, most CMOs are incredibly strategic, and they’re also handling a ton of different small pieces, which is really a tough job. I’d say you need to have somebody who is going to go pull that information together for you. You need a person in direct contact with you who actually takes a day to dump from the CRM system, takes time to go interface with a sale, really provides what you might call persona.

  2. When I look for segments for a certain product, I always start by asking the client, “What do you sell the most of?” Then, “What are the segments of that product?” I go down the list asking the questions: I want to know the day of the last hundred sales, if I have that many sales in that product, who bought it, the industry. I want to know all that detail. I want to know what the objectives were from the sales process, I want to know what kinds of issues there have been.

    Frankly, that can be done. It doesn’t have to be long, but it’s a lot of footwork. You can get that down to a couple pages of information. I would say as a CMO, that’s the first thing  I’d want to do.

  3. Once I have that information, I know the people I’m talking to, I have all that data, and I know what the issues are. Once you have that in front of you, you can create content. You can create content because you know what these people are going through, or at least you should at that point. Now you can say, “Let's talk about what we know as it relates to what they need to know to their jobs better. How can we solve their problems?” 

Another thing is that people tend to talk and write about what they sell, not about what they know. To be heard, you have to talk about what you know, not about what you sell. People have that B.S. detector. Don’t just say, “Oh, we're great, you should buy us.” If you're educating the customer, you’ll say, “Here are the kinds of things you should be aware of, and here’s how we address these issues. Here are some other people talking about some related stuff.” Or you talk about industry things that are relevant. 

I have a lot of customers who sell products to marketing and sales people, so they can talk about marketing your sales, and maybe that sales executive or marketing executive will click on it and read the article or listen to the podcast—whatever is the right way to connect with that customer. 

We can figure that stuff out by having their information in front of us when we start the whole process. So that's the first thing I would do as a CMO. That’s what I do when I look into customers: I get all the stuff down so we all have a really clear idea—an agreement—about who we’re talking to. Once we know that, the content tends to write itself.

If you're present, you are facilitating that project; you're a part of the engine that makes that go. If you’re not around, now the CMO has to delegate this project. Let's talk about that for a minute. 

Who are we going to get? Is it the director of my content team? Does that person need to have certain skills? You say data dump, and I don’t know how comfortable they are with data. They write things. I don't know if they do data. 

Help us think through how to delegate this project.

I’d find somebody who is good at synthesizing information, obviously. It doesn't have to be somebody who's a hard-core data person. It’s nice if they are, but it just has to be somebody that can find the answers to those seven or eight questions we went through here. It has to be somebody who will spend maybe a week or two to get the information and put it in there. It just needs to be somebody who has the ability to look at a group of information and go, “Oh here are the larger groupings.” 

So basic skills. I think it can be almost anyone, as long as they have the ability to look at something and say, “Here are the two or three groups I see. I see these industries. I see these titles,” or whatever. They should have the ability to not get lost in the data and not overanalyze. We're looking for hard-to-get data but not complex data.

Organizing Your Content Marketing

There are still some core questions that need to be answered. We get the information, we synthesize that data to find the categories that you're talking about, and from those categories we decide which we want to talk more to and get in deeper with. That is the framework. 

Now, one step beyond that. We’ve found one segment amongst the three that we really should be talking to. What kind of content should we make for that one segment? An article, an eBook, a white paper? How do you determine that?

I would start with the biggest segment, but I would say I’m going to make content for the second and third groups too. I’m just going to prioritize. 

Let’s say we're talking to IT directors, and they're going to be buying a service that attracts software on their servers. Some complex thing. 

  1. I go on to LinkedIn and find out a little bit about these people and their skill sets, and I do some thinking. I get some information from the salespeople, like “When you deal with these people, what are the questions they're asking, what are the issues they’re talking about?” Maybe do a ride-along.Those questions they’re already asking tell me the kinds of content I can create. By understanding what kind of feedback the salespeople are getting, I know the needs or the problems people need solved. Where are their pain points? How can we talk about solving pain points beyond our product? Just from looking at those little pieces, I have already a pool of topic ideas.


  2. Once I have the topics, I can get one piece of content and make multiple things from it. I'm going to pick a format to produce regularly.  I love to do podcasts and blogs, because I think it’s a nice way to capture original content. I can have a podcast on a platform like Speaker or SoundCloud. I can have a video up on YouTube. I can embed those in my blog. Then I can take that same content and turn it into written posts. I can also roll things up to become ebooks and white papers and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of flexibility. 
  3. Then I would plan out a production schedule for those regular pieces. Weekly, every two weeks, monthly, depending on what the company says. I think that doing it less than once a month, depending on what you’re doing, is probably not enough. Doing something weekly might be aggressive, but it’s probably better for the content. 
  4. The other thing I would do when I look at this group of topics is identify industry. Let's say I do a blog/podcast twice a month and create some written pieces from that. Then what I want to do is find folks who are experts on these topics—a combination of internal experts in my company and external industry influencers like authors, bloggers, and other people who know the topic. Then I'm going to create content around that.The people from my company are going to be in the same format and the same place as the external influencers. People are saying, “Are they industry leaders, known industry figures?” and so I get ‘guilt by association.’ I'm also showing the breadth of my company.
  5. Once I have identified the editorial topics and the people who can talk on those topics, I would then focus on what they talk about specifically. My content calendar, my editorial calendar, literally almost writes this up. You have to go through the steps, but when you start looking at the topics and the times when people can talk about them, you can start mapping that out on an editorial calendar.

It's really straightforward, but it's hard for people to stay focused, because it gets a little bit overwhelming. They look at the elephant and go, “How can I eat a whole elephant?” It’s one piece at a time.

Multiple Bites of the Apple: Making Your Content Work Harder for You

Now we have a picture of not just how content gets made but how that content will be useful—useful to us as a company also useful to those who take it in. 

Final check: did we miss anything? Is there anything more we can ask to fully blow out the conversation?

I think that if you follow this process where you identify the consumers, identify topics that relate to them, and identify internal experts and external influencers that can talk about it on your show, you have all the pieces. What you can then do takes a little pre-planning. 

Let’s say I know in advance that I want to do an eBook, for instance. I can pick a topic—say I want to talk about server logs and the future of analytics for server logs. I can have five different experts speak on that topic. I can even use the same five questions in each of those interviews, and I can do two or three simultaneously. 

So I have those five things. I produce or publish them in real time. Now it all exists out there. Then I can go back and turn them into blogs. I can take all that content, including the written pieces I’ve made, and turn all of it into an eBook. So now I can gate that piece of content for demand generation. 

I've had multiple bites of the apple. Each original piece of content has four or five or six digital pings on the internet. Those pieces of content have also been rolled up into a large piece which I can now promote, do PPC around, use as a gated item, use to drive blog subscription, or whatever. 

I think that if you plan that ahead, doing groupings for those, you can not only do regular production but also make these bigger content pieces. Most marketers throw themselves at the big content pieces and then chop it up and hope it works out. It's always a little funky, and I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. Why not do it going forward and assemble the book later?

People who are going to want the eBook are going to be different from people who have watched all along. You get two bites of the apple. You get all those people who have learned about the content and interacted with your brand, and now you have another piece you can gate or use to ask for an email address.

Wonderful. So how are you bringing all these concepts together in your business?

I guess there are two parts. One is really one-on-one: having the opportunity to go out and talk about this to fellow marketers like yourself and chat about it because again, we’re all in agreement about these kinds of things, but other people haven't necessarily heard it. Just because you and I might know it inside out doesn’t mean everybody else does. That's one piece. 

The other part is continuation, like the CMO TV thing. I had an opportunity. I know some really incredible CMOs, and I love nerding it out and having these geek marketing conversations with them about what they're thinking about, what the challenges are. CMOs don't have many outlets for having these kinds of conversations. They’re great conversations to have, and I knew other people would benefit. At the larger levels, I tend to stick around the content theme, but I want to have these conversations with CMOs. Those are the kinds of conversations I’ve had over drinks, but now they’re recorded so we can share with other people to increase institutional knowledge.

Excellent. Maybe someone is enjoying this conversation and thinking, “Steve is the guy we need.” Where can they reach you to take the next step?

They can find me on Twitter as Steveology and on LinkedIn as Steve Farnsworth. Steve, thank you for your time today. Thank you for unraveling this process for us. 

It's been an absolute delight. I love chatting about marketing. Obviously it's not something you normally do at parties, because if you go up and talk about marketing to folks at parties they tend to walk away awkwardly. I appreciate the opportunity.

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